A Bitter Complaint of the Ungentle Reader


From cover of The Studio Almanac, illustrated by J. Walter West, 1897

by Louise Imogen Guiney

An editor, a person of authority and supposed discretion, requested a friend of mine, the other day, to write an essay with this weird title: “How to Read a Book of Poems so as to Get the Most Good out of It.” My friend, “more than usual calm,” politely excused himself, suffering the while from suppressed oratory. He felt that the diabolic suggestion, made in all:

Conscience and tendre herte,

amounted to a horrible implied doubt concerning the lucidity of himself and other minor bards, publishing today and tomorrow. They have become difficult to read, only because a too educational world of readers is determined to find them so. Now, eating is to eat, with variations in haste, order, quantity, quality, and nocturnal visions: with results, in short; but eating is to eat. Even thus, as it would appear to a plain mind, reading is to read. Can it be that any two or two thousand can wish to be preached at, in order that they may masticate a page correctly, in squads? That they may never forget, like Mr. Gladstone’s progeny, to apportion thirty-two bites to every stanza, with the blessing before, and the grace after? No full-grown citizen is under compulsion to read; if he do so at all, let him do it individually, by instinct and favor, for wantonness, for private adventure’s sake: and incidental profit be hanged, drawn and quartered! To enter a library honorably, is not to go clam-digging after useful information, nor even after emotions. The income to be secured from any book stands in exact disproportion to the purpose, as it were, of forcing the testator’s hand: a moral very finely pointed in The Taming of the Shrew and again in Aurora Leigh. To read well is to make an impalpable snatch at whatever item takes your eye, and run. The schoolmaster has a contradictory theory. He would have us in a chronic agony of inquisitiveness, and with minds gluttonously receptive, not of the little we need (which it is the ideal end and aim of a university education, according to Newman, to perceive and to assimilate) but of the much not meant for us. Wherefore to the school master there may be chanted softly in chorus:

Ah, mon pere, ce que vous dites la est du dernier bourgeois.

The Muse is dying nowadays of over-interpretation. Too many shepherd swains are trying to Get the Most Good out of her. When Caius Scriblerius prints his lyric about the light of Amatoria’s eyes, which disperses his melancholy moods, the average public, at least in Boston, cares nothing for it, until somebody in lack of employment discovers that as Saint Patrick’s snakes were heathen rites, and as Beatrice Portinari was a system of philosophy, so Amatoria’s eyes personify the sun-myth. And Caius shoots into his eleventh edition.

Mr. Browning, perhaps, will continue to bear this sort of enlargement and interfusion; indeed, nothing proves his calibre quite so happily as the fact that his capacious phantasmal figure, swollen with the gas of much comment and expounding, has a fair and manly look, and can still carry off, as we say, its deplorable circumference. But at the present hour, there is nothing strange in imagining less opaque subjects being hauled in for their share of dissection before Browning societies. Picture, for instance, a conclave sitting from four to six over the sensations of Mrs. Boffkin,

Waiting for the Sleary babies to develop Sleary’s fits.

(For Mr. Kipling must be a stumbling-block unto some, as unto many a scandal.) Is there no fun left in Israel? Have we to endure, for our sins, that a super-civilization insists on being vaccinated by the poor little poets, who have brought, alas, no instrument but their lyre? Can we no longer sing, without the constraint of doling out separately to the hearer, what rhetoric is in us, what theory of vowel color, what origin and sequences, what occult because non-existent symbolism? without setting up for oracles of dark import, and posing romantically as “greater than we know?” To what a pass has the ascendant New England readeress brought the harmless babes of Apollo! She seeks to master all that is, and to raise a complacent creation out of its lowland wisdom to her mountainous folly’s level; she touches nothing that she does not adorn with a problem; she approves of music and pictures whose reasonableness is believed to be not apparent to the common herd; she sheds scholastic blight upon “dear Matt Prior’s easy jingle,” and unriddles for you the theological applications of:

Says gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy:
‘I am extremely hungaree.’

She is forever waking the wrong passenger: forever falling upon the merely beautiful, and exacting of it what it was never born to yield. The arts have a racial shyness: the upshot of this scrutiny of their innocent faces is that they will be fain to get into a hole and hide away for good. We lay it all to the ladies; for the old lazy unprovincialized world of men was never so astute and excruciating. There were no convenings for the purpose of illuminating the text of Dr. John Donne, although the provocation was unique. Poets were let alone, once upon a time; and all they did for their own pleasure and sowed broadcast for the pleasure of others, failed not, somehow, to fulfill itself from the beginning unto the end. What is meant for literature now, begotten in simpleness and bred in delight, arises as a quarrel between producer and consumer,

And thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

The man’s attitude, even yet, towards a book of poetry which is tough to him, is to drop it, even as the gods would have him do; the woman’s is to smother it in a sauce of spurious explanation, and gulp it down.

In a sophisticating age, it is the nature of poets to remain young. Their buyers are always one remove nearer to the sick end of the century, and being themselves tainted with a sense of the importance of the scientific, are in so much disqualified to judge of the miracle, the phenomenon, which poetry is. To whomever has an idle and a fresh heart, there is great encouragement in the poetic outlook. The one harassing dread is that modern readers may scorch that hopeful field. They refuse to take us for what we are: they are of one blood with the mediæval Nominalists, who regarded not the existence of the thing, but the name by which they denoted it. They make our small gift futile, and their own palates a torment. We solemnly pronounce our wares, such as they be, handsomer in the swallowing than in the chewing: alas, so far, it is our fate to be chewed. Who can help applying to an adult magazine constituency which yearns to be told How to Read a Book of Poems, the “so help me God” of dear Sir Thomas More? “So help me God, and none otherwise but as I verily think, that many a man buyeth Hell with so much pain, he might have Heaven with less than the one-half.”

Essay first published in 1894. Via

About the Author:

Louise Imogen Guiney (January 7, 1861 – November 2, 1920) was an American poet, editor and writer.